Tuesday, June 15, 2004

A LATE POST ABOUT THE LATE RON: So Ronald Reagan died, and while I dithered, absurdly, over whether and what to post, the commentariat turned inside out and back again, with Reagan hagiographies, then the anti-hagiographic backlash, then the anti-backlash backlash, etc.

Writers’ use of the Reagan legacy is contaminated by the emotional heat of the present election season. I liked what Frank Rich had to say about Reagan and Bush Jr. What follows here are some superficial but honest personal recollections of Ronald Reagan.

My high school broadcast Reagan’s first inaugural speech over the intercom system. I was sitting in calculus class, immediately in front of the teacher, Mrs. McNally. She was a large presence (literally and figuratively) in this school, dreaded by students but bolstered by seniority. Mrs. McNally was unpleasant, unkind, unreasonable, and given to playing mind games with her young charges: she’d be merely stern and cold some days, but shrill and hectoring on others. I can say nothing in her favor, except that years later I realized I’d learned quite a lot of math in her classes.

Teaching was on hold until Reagan finished speaking, when McNally said, her cigarette-ravaged voice full of pride, “Well, I don’t think I can follow that.”

So McNally, my inscrutible arbitrary martinet of a math teacher, was a Reaganite! Can’t follow that? Oh, give it a shot, I said to myself, with a big inward smirk and roll of the eyes—-and from that day forward, that teacher, whom I had allowed to make me miserable for two years, never cost me a minute’s worry, never laid a psychic glove on me.

A couple of months later, I was at home one day lounging on the living room couch. (Was I sick? Was it spring break? Not sure.) The phone rang, my mother answered it, and a moment later cried out, “Oh my God, is he dead?” She sounded so shocked, for a long moment I was sure my father or my brother had been in a terrible accident. In fact, President Reagan had been shot. I haven’t heard any pundit remark in the last week, in explaining Reagan’s popularity, how much sympathy and good will he gained simply for surviving Hinckley’s assassination attempt. The political killings of the ‘60s were still fairly fresh in people’s minds, and there had been John Lennon’s murder just a few months earlier. For Ronnie to have a brush with violent death, but recover, and give us a wink and a quip while he did it—-people were simply grateful for that.

Flash forward to fall 1984. I was a college senior, eligible to vote for President for the first time. On the night of the last Reagan-Mondale debate, the dean of students reserved one of the union lounges for a debate-watching party, and invited a handful of students whom he liked and knew to be of liberal leanings-—a minority subset of the campus population. I was there. The handwriting was on the wall that Reagan would win going away, unless he utterly collapsed in this night’s debate (and he had stumbled badly in an earlier one). So we drank soft drinks and ate potato chips and milled about, and occasionally heckled Reagan’s image on the big screen. But he wasn’t collapsing; he gave a sound Reaganesque performance. After awhile I sat down in the back of the room and filled out my absentee ballot for Walter Mondale, full of my 20-year-old’s smug certitude, congratulating myself on my symbolic gesture, confident that my man would lose.

Memory is such a tricky thing. It’s difficult to reconstruct what we thought or felt 25 years ago, “bracketing out” what we know of the intervening years. I rather respect the conclusion of the liberal blogger Apartment 11D that, through the lens of happy high school and college years, her view of Ronald Reagan is a rather fond one. I can’t say the same, though. I became aware of Reagan in ’76, when he challenged Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, and my 12-year-old’s conception was that next to Ford, Reagan was flashy and smooth-talking but vaguely untrustworthy. I never quite took the man seriously, never took him at face value.

Of course, I have plenty of fond memories from the Reagan years, set against the haze of happy complacency that I associate with the man. One of my regrets from college is that I passed up a chance to ride to Washington and take part in a US-Out-of-Central-America march. Because I think it would have been a hell of a fun road trip, and because as it is I have no sense of participating in the social and political ferment of the era. But at the time, on that sleepy campus, it just didn’t seem urgent to me.

Peter Manseau has an excellent recent essay about the apocalyptic dread that he associates with Reagan. The sentiments he describes ring plausible to me, and I certainly felt Reagan was inflammatory and reckless in some of his anti-Soviet rhetoric—-yet I didn’t really fear nuclear war. It was the complacent haze, I guess. To the extent I thought about the issue, I reasoned that somebody would have to be the first to push the button, and nobody would. Our leaders (including the Soviets) were often silly and misguided, but not crazy or evil.

I do, however, remember my friend Steve R. wondering out loud over beers one night if we were going to war with Libya. The government (Carter, actually, I believe) had reinstituted mandatory draft registration, and being sent on some damn-fool military excursion seemed well within the realm of possibility. Not that I would die, just that the country and I might waste a couple of valuable years.

During that Mondale campaign I had a copy of a book titled Reagan’s Reign of Error. It was the 1984 counterpart to Bushisms, a collection of Reagan gems like trees causing pollution, the man collecting welfare under 27 different names, and the rest, with the compilers citing each Reagan quote then reporting the facts of each case, always quite different than what Reagan stated or implied. My roommate and I would read bits of it aloud to each other. Why can’t every American read this stuff? Nobody would vote for that clown! Mine was the only copy of the book I ever remember seeing.

Here’s what Reagan meant to me: The haze. A large gap between appearance and reality. The birth of a cynic. The habit (pathetic) of cherishing my private political wisdom in the face of mass electoral delusion.

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